The 2013 Ottawa Fringe Festival ended recently, so completely ignoring that I’ve been in neglect of this website for six months (I’ll get to that eventually) let’s talk about that.
Putting aside my own show in the festival (I’ll get to that, too) I saw twenty-six different shows between June 20th and June 30th this year. You can find my official reviews for twenty-five of them over on Production Ottawa (I was paid to attend the twenty-sixth as videographer, so didn’t review that one) but we have a specific mandate, style and word count on Production Ottawa so a lot of thoughts about a number of those shows never made it into the reviews. Plus I don’t get to compare shows in proper reviews. Basically, this is the overflow.
That Mackey Guy’s Best of Fest
I enjoyed many of the shows I saw this year. In fact, at a glance, I’d say I enjoyed twenty of them well enough and only disliked six. Of that twenty, I enjoyed some shows, some were all right, some I loved. But two standout for simply blowing me away.
The Frenzy of Queen Maeve and The Fight.
Both were shows I had only lukewarm expectations of going in* so while I expected them to be good, I wasn’t at all expecting them to be nearly as good as they were. In that way you could also call them the biggest surprises of the festival – which is one of the most exciting parts of the festival.
My review says all I need to about the Frenzy of Queen Maeve: this is a show that wouldn’t be out of place on stage at the Great Canadian Theatre Company and is as strong as some of the strongest dramas I’ve seen there or anywhere in the last year (and there’ve been a lot).
The Fight did one extra thing that stood out for me. There’s a too often forgotten adage about fight scenes (and sex scenes) which is that they only really work if they’re built on characters, or stakes. I don’t want to explain that further because because John Rogers said it as well as I ever could already. Here’s a relevant excerpt:
You don’t do an action sequence for the sake of doing a damn action sequence — you do an action sequence because it’s a new or more effective way to advance your character or story.
Would you ever intentionally write a scene in which your protagonist was completely reactive, and the outcome of the scene was a foregone conclusion? Of course not. Screenwriting 101, and your drum-circle of a writing group would pillory you for it. But that is precisely how 99.999999999 % of action sequences are currently written.
With a play called The Fight, and with the little hype I was aware of being about the fight choreography and full contact between the actors, that’s what I expected going in. What I didn’t expect, which is what sold The Fight for me, was that every fight meant something. Every fight (and being stage, these weren’t long sequences anyway) was designed to reveal the characters and show what they were gaining, what they were losing, or how they were changing. We knew what the stakes of each fight were and that knowledge enhanced the show dramatically (in both of the ways you can take that). I was thoroughly engrossed in this show because of the strong writing and blend of story and action and it held me right until the surprising and yet inevitable conclusion (another staple of great storytelling).
Honorable mention: Around Miss Julie. This was another show I loved. It’s third of a top three that are all interchangeable. The only reason I’m calling it “honorable mention” is because it didn’t surprise me like the other two did. I’d heard good things about the show and was expecting a good time when I sat down for it to start. I’d met Lindsey Huebner a few days earlier (for a radio interview) and in talking to her, learned about the show from her and saw her own passion and love for it – which is also huge. You can tell when people love what they’re doing.
So that’s it. Best drama, best action/drama and best comedy at the 2013 Ottawa Fringe.
As somebody who spends a lot of time analyzing and thinking about story craft, even if I’m not in love with something I like parsing things down to the very core of what they could be and trying to see where the unrealized potential is. The “how could this have worked better and been stronger”.
So next on the list here are two shows I liked, or liked parts of, but that I wanted to like so much more. The Day We Grew Wings and The Vanity Project.
What The Day We Grew Wings did well, it did really well. Victoria Luloff, Zach Counsil, and Nick Surges did some great work on stage. The imaginative story telling bits did it for me and I loved watching them. Where I needed more was from the over-arching story. The core thread of The Day We Grew Wings is a woman, Clara Jenkins, who suffered some real-life trauma and so retreated into this childhood word of imagination and story telling. The trouble was that it never really reflected. There wasn’t enough development of the meta story such that the imagination world reflected what was going on in Clara’s life. In short, there was very little in the show that made me care about Clara or what her deal was.
Little would have made me happier with this show than to see Clara’s imagination turn on her as she continued to deny facing her reality. I feel like The Day We Grew Wings wanted to get there but never really succeeded. In some ways, the emotional core of The Day We Grew Wings (or at least what I thought the emotional core wanted to be) reminded me of The Neverending Story where, after denying his own ‘involvement’ in the story for the entirety of the movie, he’s forced to relent and name the Childlike Empress. What The Day We Grew Wings needed, was to be reveal Clara’s story and what she was hiding from in a way that slowly brought us to a place where by the end of the show, like Bastian, the audience is invested in her success and willing her to succeed.
As an aside, I’ve seen similar problems with Fringe shows in the past, where good could have great if that emotional core had just gotten there. One show that didn’t have that problem was Vernus Says Surprise in 2012. The reason Vernus did so well is because it was crafted in a way that by the end of the show, every person in the audience knew Vernus’ struggle and wanted to see him succeed. They needed to see him succeed. They were invested in his success while they followed him in his adventure.
Alternately, The Day We Grew Wings could just drop the real world Clara story and make it a fairy tale. One or the other.
The Vanity Project simply needed a much tighter story. Aside from one questionable casting decision, and perhaps having a director who wasn’t the writer/creator and one of the stars of the show, it was the fact that The Vanity Project’s story was so undeveloped that held it back. The concept is a good one. Two of three main cast members were wonderful. The design, in reds, whites, and blacks was striking (and things hanging from the ceiling always win bonus points). Tim Oberholzer obviously had a strong vision of what he wanted this show to be. Plus, there’s no denying he has the ability to write good music.
But the story… Something like the first fifteen minutes of the show seemed to repeat the same information three times. Defining Narcissus’ character. This was fully one third of the entire show. After that, the major beats of the story just seemed to come too quickly, like this was the Cole’s notes version. Especially with trying to blend ancient Greek mythology with contemporary design, extra time needs to be spent on the defining the world and story.
Really, part of the problem could have been that Oberholzer might have expected the audience to have been as familiar with the story of Narcissus as he was from his research (and the specific version he was using at that — there are a several of them) and so was painting his corrections in broadstrokes. There definitely is a predisposition among writers when they aren’t careful to assume readers know things that they don’t actually know.
Regardless whether that last paragraph was true, I love what The Vanity Project could have been (p.s., better title?). I just feel it needs to step further away from the story it was ‘amending’ and just tell the story of Narcissus and Echo. Make it about them, make us care about them, then give us the tragedy. Plus, as I added in my review, very concisely retell the story of Narcissus at the outset, so we can see where this is going. I truly think that if it’s done right, not only will this “here’s what really happened” succeed as a reimagining, it can have audiences, despite knowing how it’s going to end, firmly hoping that those two kids will work out in the end. And that’s the mark of a great tragedy — knowing how it ends and hoping desperately for it to be different.
Both The Vanity Project and The Day We Grew Wings are shows that I really hope continue to get worked on and that I would love to see again down the road, both to see how far they’ve come and because I expect they can both become really strong shows with some work.
Just for the sake of word counts, I’ll be continuing my 2013 Ottawa fringe Overflow in a separate second post. In part two, I’ll talk about the big lesson or takeaway from Fringe as whole, go into the shows I didn’t like and throw around some random awards and happiness. See you there!